Question: I always had a crush on Sarah Purcell, one of the hosts of the original reality show, Real People. Unlike the hosts of newer reality shows, didn't she actually do some of the stuff she talked about? Thanks for your answer. — Larry D., Bennington, Vt.
Televisionary: To hear Purcell and the people she worked with tell the tale, she did, Larry — everything from walking out on a beam 33 stories in the air to interviewing steelworkers to driving a Formula race car at 140 mph and mixing it up with some roller-derby gals. All part of the job as far as Purcell — who hosted the show with Fred Willard, John Barbour, Skip Stephenson, Byron Allen and others — throughout the NBC show's run from April 1979 to July 1984, was concerned.
As you note, unlike, say, Fear Factor's Joe Rogan or other reality-show hosts who let others do the dirty work, Purcell got directly involved on the show as she profiled "real" people ranging from a burlesque queen who stripped for God to a detective who searched for missing dogs and a family who lived in a 118-foot Baltimore clipper ship built in their front yard. And she loved to talk about it.
"I was sent out to do a story about a school in the California desert that trains drivers for big auto events like the Long Beach Grand Prix," she told TV Guide in 1981. "George Schlatter [Real People's executive producer, who also created Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In] warned me not to go over 55 miles per hour. When I got to the training track and the cameras were on me in the car, I went through a lot of curves and then there was a beautiful straightaway in front of me. I said to myself, 'Hey, I'm on my own. What are they going to do?' So I opened up the car. The tachometer was not supposed to go over 3000 rpm, but I got it up to 4500. The owner of the school scrambled down from his watchtower and furiously flagged me off the track. He said I was just on the verge of being out of control. It was a lot of fun."
Well, fun as long as you weren't Schlatter, who had a lot invested in his host's health, or her insurers, who weren't easy to find. "One day last year I thought, 'God, what if something happens to me?' and I tried to buy accident and casualty insurance," she recalled. "I discovered that no insurance company would touch me." She ended up signing a policy with Lloyd's of London, but her premiums were so high her producers had to pay part of them.
As far as your calling Real People the original reality show? Pretty much, though it certainly drew from a long tradition of shows that mined real kids and real eccentrics for laughs. And like its descendants, Real People, which started out modestly but became a true hit and spawned imitators like That's Incredible! and Those Amazing Animals, attracted its share of criticism and controversy from those who thought it took advantage of its quirkier subjects.
Schlatter, for his part, heartily disagreed. "Real People is a freak show? Hell, no," he said. "Look, we're not sadists; we don't exploit people's weirdness or make fun of them. At first, we thought everything had to be bizarre or funny.... As the show grew, we found the public wanted real stuff — normal people who'd done something to be looked up to. Not packaged cop shows or jiggly girls or some 'celebrity' talking about his dental work on the Carson show. We've got the format down so that each show has a hero piece. For example, we did one on Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger. He's 65 years old and can't wear a mask he made famous because some guy stopped him in court. We had tremendous response there. And each show has a dream or fantasy piece and a role-model piece — in addition to the lighter stuff: bloopers, weird signs, ads. We have a solid core. You want freak shows? I'll tell you what. Go talk to those bandits up the street at ABC. That's Incredible! are the freak hunters. They're the exploiters."
It's hard to draw the line as to who the bigger exploiters were, though That's Incredible! was the show that ended up with more injured people, as I remember. But the most prescient comment about the whole phenomenon came from TV Guide critic Robert MacKenzie, who couldn't have known his 1979 observation would be even more applicable 25 years later when he wrote: "We will run out of oil before we run out of characters, eccentrics and pursuers of odd quests. So this new NBC comedy hour should never be short of material."